The Grammarphobia Blog

A copper’s nark

Q: I’ve been doing a bit of time travel these days via old radio recordings. On a 1950 broadcast of Whitehall 1212, a program based on Scotland Yard cases, a key character is a “copper’s nark.” In the states he’d be called a “stool pigeon.” How did Brits come up with “copper’s nark”?

A: The term “copper’s nark,” meaning a police informer, showed up in Britain in the late 19th century, but “nark” itself had been used earlier in that same sense and still earlier to mean a nasty person.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “nark” is of “unknown origin,” but adds that “perhaps” it comes from nok, the word for “nose” in the dialect of Romany spoken in England.

However, the OED says this “assumed development would require that the Romani word had an extended sense denoting a person, but this is not attested.” (The English word “nose” has been used as a slang term for a police informer since the 1780s.)

When the word “nark” appeared in the mid-19th century, it referred to an “annoying, unpleasant, obstructive, or quarrelsome person,” according to the dictionary.

The first example in the OED is from The Swell’s Night Guide (1846), by Lord Chief Baron (pseudonym of the actor-writer Renton Nicholson): “They are the rankest narks vot ever God put guts into, or ever farted in a kickses case [pair of trousers].”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “nark” used in the snitch sense is from The Vulgar Tongue, an 1857 slang dictionary that defines it as “a person who obtains information under seal of confidence, and afterwards breaks faith.”

(The author, Ducange Anglicus, is a pseudonym formed from the surname of the 17th-century French philologist Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange, and the Latin word for “Englishman.”)

The next citation refers specifically to a police informer: “Nark, a person in the pay of the police; a common informer.” (From  A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, 1860, by John Camden Hotten.)

The third Oxford example (from the May 24, 1879, issue of the journal Notes and Queries) uses the full term you heard on the radio program Whitehall 1212 (the old phone number for Scotland Yard): “Copper’s nark, a police spy.”

In the late 19th century, the word “nark” took on the additional sense of a “police officer.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from No. 747: Being the Autobiography of a Gipsy, an 1891 novel by Francis Wylde Carew (pen name of Arthur E. G. Way): “If you don’t turn up my fair share, I’ll put the narks upon you. S’elp me never, I will.”

Finally, the verb “nark” has been used since the late 1800s in the sense of to act as an informer or to annoy. Here’s an example for the “annoy” sense from John Dalby’s 1888 novel, Mayroyd of Mytholm: “That’s just what he’s ta’en to him for, just to nark Mayroyd.”

All the OED citations for “nark” in its various senses are from British, Australian, or New Zealand sources.

However, the dictionary has an entry for a similar word, “narc,” which it defines as chiefly North American slang for a “police agent or investigator concerned with narcotics.”

Oxford describes the American usage as a “clipping or shortening” of the noun “narcotic,” and notes a similar US slang term, “narco,” for illegal drugs, a South American drug baron, or a police agent concerned with narcotics. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) adds that “narc” can also mean an informer.

Although the OED describes “narc” as a clipped form of “narcotic,” the dictionary says it may also have been influenced by the British term “nark.” In fact, the earliest Oxford citation for the American usage spells the word “nark”:

“The narcotics bureau of the Treasury Department wanted to keep all drugs illegal, to step up law enforcement, add thousands of T-men, G-men, and narks to the payroll.” (From The Politics of Ecstasy, 1966, by Timothy Leary. We’ve filled in an ellipsis in the OED example.)

The next citation spells it the usual American way: “The police didn’t frighten him. The Narcs didn’t frighten him.” (From Shaft, a 1971 detective novel, by Ernest Tidyman, that inspired four films and a TV a series.)

And here’s an example from American Heritage for “narc” used as a verb meaning to “snitch”: “He was caught dealing drugs because his roommate narced on him.”

As for “stool pigeon,” the term originally referred to a hunting decoy—a live pigeon fastened to a stool to attract game birds. If you’d like to read more, we discussed the usage on the blog in 2008.

Getting back to “copper’s nark,” we’ll end with this example from George Bernard Shaw’s 1916 play Pygmalion: “It’s a—well, it’s a copper’s nark, as you might say. What else would you call it? A sort of informer.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.